Why the Mass Effecting of Dragon Age might not be a bad thing

Immediate, upfront confession: compared to Patricia and Graham, I am a Dragon Age noob. I’ve beaten the game once, but that’s as far as it goes. Normal is as high as the difficulty slider goes. The only class I’ll play as is a mage, because the other classes, let’s be honest, suck. It’s a game I enjoyed, but not one whose marrow I sucked with my lips. The setting is pretty awesome, but…the game itself never grabbed me.

Same with Mass Effect. I loved Mass Effect 1, and 2 was a great game, but…I find it hard mustering up too much care for them. Really, as a Bioware fan, my allegiances lie with Black Isle. Baldur’s Gate. Icewind Dale. Planescape: Torment. Neverwinter Nights. Old games, set in the AD&D universe/the 3rd Edition universe. Those are the games I remember and love. Maybe this is because I’m an old idiot, or maybe it’s because I like

So what I’m here to say is that Dragon Age 2 won’t be so bad. In fact, it’ll probably be better than the original. And that learning from Mass Effect isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Let’s start at the bit that got Graham off the sequel bandwagon: the conversation wheel. Yes, there’s a conversation wheel now. Yes, the things Hawke, new protagonist extraordinaire, says will be represented by a few words instead of as a whole complete statement.

And you know what? That’s awesome. The thing is, Mass Effect’s conversation wheel and its paragon/renegade options are usually mashed up, which makes sense considering they are both parts of a whole. The problem with Mass Effect 2’s conversation wheel wasn’t the wheel itself. Yes, it occasionally resulted in Shepard saying things you didn’t expect him to (this never really happened to me, but apparently this is a problem). That’s okay. That’s how conversations work. Someone says I’m going to destroy your planet and you think to yourself, No, you’re not, and it comes out I am going to fucking kill you and your entire family. We don’t always say what we think.

If DA2 has the same number of choices Mass Effect 2 had, it’ll work. It’ll work because, without a forced paragon/renegade system combatizing conversation (by making it dependent on levels, not intelligence), it’ll have six options, instead of three, for a whole lot of situations. This will allow for grey area, and also for dramatic deviation. I have a hard time believing Bioware, with a massive voice acting infrastructure in place, would not provide as many responses as in ME2. I have a hard time believing they’d take their second most successful game of all time and cut out the one thing that made it special, the moral grey. That would be absurd.

As for the loss of origin stories, I can take or leave those. The problem with the origin stories is that they limit your perceptions of the character. Part of the joy of games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights was the emergent stories that could evolve: you could play any character you wanted, and place them into situations. Sure, you still had a bit of restriction (you had to be an orphan who grew up in Candlekeep, or someone who’d go to Icewind Dale or Neverwinter), but these were reasonable. Dragon Age, for all its supposed freedom, locked you into being one of these origins much more tightly than the games it emulated: you were the son of the Arl of Cousland, and you were limited to being his smarmy son. People treated you like they knew you, which limited the reactions you could have. To give a specific example, I recently played the city elf story (as a female rogue) to play the game again. I got completely turned off because none of the responses were what I wanted to respond, because my character got it in her head that she was going to fucking kill everyone. She wasn’t going to make fun of them, or try to negotiate with them, she wanted to cancel conversation and stab them. This was not an option. It destroyed the sense of immersion, because I couldn’t respond how I wanted to. No video game has really provided you the option to role play an emergent character any way you wanted.

(A couple asides, now. First, Bit-Tech has a fun post about this lack of choice in Dragon Age, specifically in regard to atheism. Second, it’s why I only play mages: the mage story is the most ambiguous, and it covers all the plots that I’d think of emerging through my character.)

Hawke, on the other hand, is a guy. He is a guy you are playing, like Shepard. Shepard is a guy (or girl, in my case because Jennifer Hale is a vastly superior voice actor) who has a personality. He’s had a life. He has an origin story but his origin isn’t especially relevant; he’s a human commando, who shoots people. Paragon and Renegade are really the only two choices you could make: he’s either a hardcore badass, or he’s a let’s get along negotiator. What else could he be? He’s already lived life.

That’s the difficulty with making a game with emergent characters. Shepard is someone, and I can step into his skin. Dragon Age Protagonist is not someone. S/he is a character I create, and who I place expectations on. Hawke is not a character I create, but someone who’s lived a part of their life. Any story that would be created around the character is framed by his/her life beforehand. It allows for the same level of moral ambiguity (I mean, how would a refugee react? It allows a lot of options for selfish action, but also for selfless acts) while removing the ambiguity that confuses the characters.

This slight change in mechanic has a lot of the internet up in arms, but doesn’t necessitate a major change in gameplay. Dragon Age 2 can still be wonderfully open ended with a spoken protagonist and a conversation wheel rather than unspoken strings of dialog, if Bioware deems it to be so. And I hope they do, because Dragon Age without the complex moral choices is a game I don’t want to play. I’d rather play Baldur’s Gate instead.


  1. Graham

    Oh goodness you are so wrong on other classes sucking. I’ll leave your opinions on DA2/ME, save for yeah the loss of Origin stories won’t be too big a deal as I’m sure they can make up for that with other innovations, but oh man is my rogue, or any build of Leliana or Zevran I’ve ever played with going to pwn your mage.

    • Tom

      I dunno. Dragon Age isn’t the hardest game to min/max. Also, you rarely, if ever, fight alone in it. xD